Personal style. What is it? I like to bring up the topic of personal style in my workshops. I think it’s important to understand that each of us has a personal style whether we know it or not. It comes from the fact that each of us is a unique individual and sees the world in our own personal way. Our skill levels are different. Our life experiences are different. Our interests are different. And that leads to each of us having our own individual world view.
You may not know what your personal style is. In fact you may not even know you have one. But you do. And even if you don’t know what it is, you can discover it. And the discovery process can be rather fascinating. During that process you can learn a lot about yourself. It’s not a short process; it doesn’t happen overnight. But if you stick with it over weeks and months and even years you’ll start to get a sense, and understanding of what you’re photography is all about. And as the understanding comes to you, you start to understand what you are all about as an artist.
It took me quite some time to even start to get an idea of what my personal style was. In fact it was a process that took a couple of years. Actually, it’s a process that still going on today because personal style is always evolving. It wasn’t until I run across a technique that I’d like to share with you that I really started to understand my personal style. Actually there are two techniques. The first involves sitting down with a representative body of your work, pulling out a paper and pencil and writing down adjectives that come to mind that describe your work. Like I suggested, they don’t all come at once. You may find that nothing comes to you right off the bat. Or maybe just one or two adjectives come to mind. On the other hand you may find you get a flood of adjectives. However it turns out, keep at it until you get a list of 15, 20 or even more adjectives. And again, it may take weeks or months for you to build your list. It may require some reflection. But if you stick with it, it will come.
This technique is good and getting a general overview of what your style is. There’s another technique that’s a little bit harder. It starts with selecting your 10 best photographs. It’s best to have prints of them so that you can sit down at a table and spread them out before you. Make sure the photographs you select are not ones that you are proud of because of your technical prowess. Make sure that they are photographs that speak to you, that convey some sort of meaning.
Now with these 10 photographs spread out in front of you, look at each carefully and from the 10 select the five best. Set the other five aside. Now with the remaining five, choose the three that mean the most to. Set the other two aside. And now from the final three narrow it down to just one. Like I said, it’s not an easy process. You have to make difficult decisions. But see it through. Come up with the one photograph that you like the most, that means the most to you. Now, with that same pencil and paper, write down the adjectives that describe that photograph. This will be your core personal style.
An interesting thing about personal style is that it changes over time. That’s to be expected because we change over time. The more we photograph, the more we see. The more we photograph, the greater our skills become. The more we do post processing, the more were able to control what are photographs express. So these exercises that can be repeated from time to time.
But the primary reason for writing this post stems from an article I read in Outdoor Photographer about Andy Biggs. Biggs took this concept of describing your work with adjectives to a whole new level. Let’s say that you ended up with a list of 25 adjectives. Biggs suggests that you start winnowing that list down. He suggests that ultimately you narrow it down to four or five adjectives. Again, this becomes the core, the essence of your personal style.
From this point on, his method is to always take into consideration these four or five adjectives when setting up a photo. In everything he photographs he tries to express these four or five adjectives. This has a powerful effect on his body of work. Because first of all there is a consistency to it. But also it is an expression of not only the way he sees the world but also the way he has chosen to communicate what he sees. Every one of his photographs conveys what he feels is important to him to say about the world.
Biggs takes these four or five adjectives one step further in that he gives quite a bit of consideration how to compose and expose and present his photographs to actually convey what these adjectives contain. So not only does he think about creating photographs that express those adjectives, those qualities, but he also gives thought as to how to express those qualities.
The adjectives that guide Biggs’ photographic vision are remote, timeless, hopeful, uplifting and regal. For him, ‘remote’ translates into “lack of human habitation.” ‘Timeless’ means a photograph that could have been taken today, 50 years ago or 200 years ago. ‘Uplifting’ and ‘regal’ lead Biggs to notions of ‘grace.’ And so on….
The interesting thing about this is the consistency that he achieves in his work. For my own part I think that would be a wonderful discipline to incorporate. That would be a great project, to identify four or five adjectives, explore ways to express them and then use them all of the works that you do. But there is another side of me that rebels against that. Sometimes I feel I don’t want to be boxed in. Sometimes I feel I want to be able to do anything that comes to me. Sometimes I want to break the rules, not just the rules of photography but my own rules. So there two different points of view here. One is to define yourself and work hard within that definition to refine your photographs. The other is to be free and wild and follow the inspiration of the moment to wherever it leads you.
Actually, I think both alternatives are pretty exciting. I must confess that my own photography is more of the latter than the former. However, I think my photography would benefit a lot by applying the discipline of the former. It’s a matter of mastering the rules, becoming intimately familiar with the inside of the box if you will, before breaking out of.
So here are some ideas for you to consider. I would suggest that for all of us, no matter which approach we take, going through the effort of discovering our personal style is very worthwhile. At least it’s been worthwhile for me and I would recommend it to you. What we do with that is up to us and I think both options, both paths would lead to a greater ability to be inspired by mother nature and to capture that inspiration so that we can share it with others. And isn’t that really our aim in landscape photography?